Brendan Loon is a graduate candidate pursuing a Master of Studies in World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, as a Rhodes Scholar (Jesus & Singapore 2020) – hopefully, en route in due course to a Doctor of Philosophy in English. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English Literature from the National University of Singapore, having graduated with Highest Distinction and been emplaced on the Dean’s List in his years as an undergraduate. Brendan serves as both an Editor of the National University of Singapore Margins Undergraduate Journal of English Literature, as well as a frequent Contributor to it, on nomination of faculty. Active in civil society, he is the Co-Founder and Deputy President (Student Engagement) of Advisory—a fully youth-led registered non-profit dedicated to empowering students to make informed career and further education choices—and was the youngest delegate on Singapore’s delegation to Suzhou in China, for the inaugural Singapore-Zhejiang Youth Leaders Exchange Programme. In The Boys’ Brigade in Singapore, he serves as Captain of the largest Company; and, nationally, as Committee Member on several Committees. Brendan’s theoretical interests lie in critical, cultural, literary, and political theory – particularly, post-colonialism, (post-)structuralism, and deconstruction.
This Subject Which Is Not One: The Analytic of Irigarayan Alterity as Approach to Post-Colonial Subjectivity in Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper
I approach Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper—a fictional work of Singapore literature published in 2016—through the analytic of Irigarayan alterity, as established through Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One, especially “Cosi fan tutti” in which is established that “[p]hallicism compensates [for… its] discursive crisis, sustaining itself upon the Other, nourishing itself with the Other, desiring itself through the Other, even without ever relating to it as such” (Irigaray 98). That is—within the discursive crisis of the ethics of representation, which is to Irigaray a ‘discursive machinery’—the ethical impulse to adopt a feminist politics in producing representations of the feminine may, while revealing, still reproduce the gendered problematics of masculinist hegemony. Despite the efforts to undermine the overriding patriarchal system(s), the feminist politics within the novel are ultimately problematic. Firstly, the only way for a woman to resist her own subjection to what Laura Mulvey calls androcentric “scopophilia” (Mulvey 59) is to appropriate it; and even then, she cannot truly transcend it. There is a feminist effort to realise the language of the semiotic: a “feminine language […] derived from the pre-Oedipal period of fusion between mother and child” (Sankaran 14). This is done through the inclusion of Tuyunri, which is—and I quote—a “language [that] is […] deeply matriarchal” (Norasid 294). However, this effort is undercut, by “the realm of shared cultural meaning” (Sankaran 14) that is patriarchal society, in which—as Brigit Schippers observes—“order of law, meaning and structure” (Schippers 2) prevails. The presentation of the underground city of Nelroote as the space of the abject—which Barbara Creed defines as “that which threatens to destroy life [but] also helps to define life” (Creed 46) such that it becomes, as Julia Kristeva posits, “the place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva 2)—is also problematic in how it conforms to, and so reproduces, even while revealing, conventional patterns of phallogocentrism which configure logic and meaning around the symbolic phallus.
Ria, The Gatekeeper’s protagonist, is—quote—a “me-tura : snake-woman ; or in other words, medusa” (Norasid 292) in the Tuyunri language of the world of Manticura within the novel — a hybrid both physically, and within the configurations of psychic possibility instantiated by Homi K. Bhabha’s ‘hybridity’ and ‘colonial ambivalence.’ The figure of the medusa is a powerful symbol of feminist resistance. She is the woman whose gaze wields power enough to trump even that of the male gaze. Thus, she may resist this androcentric gaze of scopophilia which, as Mulvey puts, “subjects [the female] to [the male’s] controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 424). This successful appropriation of the power of the gaze by the female, in Kristeva’s writing, “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4) and so threatens established patriarchal strictures. The feminist politics of the novel may at first be located in this figure of the medusa, a powerful symbol of feminist resistance. She is the woman who appropriates the power of the gaze so successfully as to triumph even over men who epitomise patriarchal supremacy: the alpha male figure of militant patriarchy, soldiers. In a head-on confrontation between Ria and a soldier, he—and I quote—“stared at her down his sight” (Norasid 261), attempting to subdue her using the power of his gaze: to take aim and fire a well-placed shot to overcome her; the medusa; the female monster. However, the power of her gaze surpassed his, being – quote: “enough […] to cover the distance between [them] within the milliseconds it took him to start curving his finger around the trigger.”
She was thus able to resist her subjection at the receiving end of a symbol of penetrating male power, the bullet of a militaristic gun. Beyond resisting her own subjection, the medusa is, having appropriated the power of the gaze, further able to threaten patriarchal strictures of institutionalised sexism. Her petrifaction is so formidable that any man would be – quote: “all gone with one look […] One look; and government officials too” (Norasid 114, emphases mine). Her power is thus capable of surmounting even that of the state and its agents, thereby posing a real threat to the established systems of order instituted in patriarchal society. In appropriating the male gaze, she disrespects, as Kristeva writes, “borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4) because she appropriates, as well, the position of the male (the looker) and abdicates the position of the female (the looked-at). Her power proves a greater menace in its potential to transgress and overturn the established norms of patriarchy. Her power of petrification subjugates male bodies, thereby inverting the norms of sexual power as the male is dominated by the female instead – quote: “all [her] statues [were] of soldier folk, and almost every one of them had been ravaged by either carving tools or paint” (Norasid 130).
However, it is then problematic that in her subjection of the male body to her control, she feminises the male body; one of her statues – quote: “was of a man with raised arms broken off at the elbows. His entire chest area was carved out into the crude beginnings of breasts, mounds rough but unmistakable.” (Norasid 130, emphases mine). This suggests that the primary way for the female to effectively resist the male gaze is to appropriate it and so subject another female to it. Through this presentation, it becomes then the natural condition of the female body to be subjugated and controlled; where there is a dearth of other females to subjugate, the solution sought is to create one through the feminisation of the male body. This presents a problematic mode of feminist resistance as (colonial) mimicry; for it is only through the appropriation of male power that the female can effectively resist subjection by the male, suggesting that power is imbricated with being male, that power is essentially bound up with masculinity. In Irigaray’s terms, “to return to that repressed entity, the female imaginary” (Irigaray 28) is to reject the, presumably, ‘male’ imaginary’s imagining that the arche and telos of woman is her condition of ““penis envy,” […] the desire to appropriate for oneself the genital organ that has a cultural monopoly on value” (87). The penis as the symbolic phallus that “men have, and, since [the woman] cannot possess it, [she] can only seek to find equivalents for it” (86) is represented in The Gatekeeper as the power to penetrate. This undercuts the extent to which the figure of the medusa may be taken as an empowering feminist symbol.
It is furthermore doubtful whether even such a woman who so successfully appropriates the male gaze ultimately resists it enough to transcend it. Ria remains subject to the sexualising power of the male gaze in the novel where the third person narration is focalised through Eedric, who conceives of her in terms of her body. When he chooses to remember—quote—“only the best of her”, his “mental image” of her clearly reflects how he subjects her to his male gaze, conceiving of her as a body fit for sexualisation – I quote: “He could […] smell the salty musk of the valley between her breasts, the fullness of them in his hands; the valley that began the invisible line down her stomach, to the pubic triangle wedged between warm thighs” (Norasid 7-8, emphases mine). She thus becomes, as Mulvey opined, “a perfect product, whose body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the [narrative] and the direct recipient of the look” (Mulvey 428). The female body therefore remains a site subject to the male gaze for the inscription of male sexual meaning and power. The scene in which Ria and Eedric engage in sexual intercourse only further reifies male sexual domination of the female body by skirting around the issues of consent. The conspicuous narrative lacuna results instead in presenting a situation of dubious consent.
In fact, the ending of the novel problematises its feminist politics as the Woman’s potential is ultimately co-opted and weaponised by the state to further and serve its own ends. In her captivity, the role of gatekeeper is forced upon Ria: any prisoner who manages to kill her will be pardoned of his crimes. Her agency is therefore usurped; whatever agency she has is only what is permitted by the state, which possesses her. Her powers are not hers to control, but are manipulated by the state as a means of ridding the state of undesirables. The state objectifies her as, quote, “no more than a severed head stuck upon the shield that the nation-state sought to build”, shielding its own interests by weaponising the woman’s potential (Norasid 277). Ria is reduced to purely an instrumental function in service to the masculinist dispossessing state institution of gaol, like the mythological Medusa’s head weaponised by Perseus: as Irigaray writes, “the [male] “subject” [only …] enjoy[s] the [monstrous feminine] body, after having chopped it up, dressed it, disguised it, mortified it in his fantasies” (Irigaray 88) — and re-purposed her for himself.
If the figure of the medusa does not stand up to scrutiny as a successful feminist effort within the novel, perhaps the re-inscribing of her identity as a ‘me-tura’ in the Tuyunri language intimates toward the next feminist impulse worth considering: the notion of language as the preserve of the symbolic would be undercut by realising the language of the semiotic as a feminist alternative to established, structured language. Tuyunri realises such a “language [that] is […] deeply matriarchal” (Norasid 294). It has many words for the social roles of females – quote: “nah uk’rh : aunt”; “na-uk : shortened form for “aunt”, usually used to address a significantly older woman” (292); “tura : woman” (294) – but only one for the social role of males – quote: “is-uk : uncle/father – The only existing word in the Tuyunri lexicon that can be used to address an older man or the father of a child” (291). As languages reflect their speakers’ cultural realities, the role of the male must not have been as prominent in Tuyunri society, such that there was no need to develop the vocabulary to refer to males using a range of referents.
Moreover, Tuyunri is well-placed to assume the role of the language of the semiotic. It is, I quote, “an old, forgotten language; the one spoken […] before writing” (Norasid 147-148), just as the semiotic is conceived of by Schippers as “pre-verbal […] modes of communication (Schippers 2). Tuyunri is imprecise—quote: “[o]ften […] running [in] circles around things, depending a lot on the context of the moment” (Norasid 148)—and privileges prosody—being “very rich with sounds” (294)—rather than semantics, just as the semiotic “dwells in the fissures and prosody of language rather than in the denotative meanings of words” (Sankaran 14). In Tuyunri’s—quote—“not [being] given time to evolve” (Norasid 148), this suggests the language was, in psychoanalytic terms, only present in early pre-Oedipal stage, the “period of fusion between mother and child” (Sankaran 14). Following the child’s transition to the symbolic realm encoded in established, structured language that defies the semiotic, this language was then discarded and so never carried forward by the child in his development. Since the child then became inducted into the symbolic realm, there was no longer any need for this semiotic language: it thus became, quote, “a language […] no one had any use for any more” (Norasid 28).
However, as was mentioned above, this female semiotic is eventually scribed over by the male symbolic and so falls short of presenting a successful feminist effort. Through the mise en abyme framing narrative of Ria’s capture, it may be seen that Ria’s narration is being scribed into existence by her captors, who are agents of the symbolic, and so the symbolic scribes over the semiotic. This comes across most clearly in the confusion caused by the misrendering of ‘me-tura’ as ‘metu’ra’ – which means “storyteller” or “[i]nscriber” (Norasid 271) instead — throughout the narrative. The gendered spaces of language are thus made patent: woman-the-storyteller and her oral traditions agitate desperately, feebly, and transiently, against man-the-inscriber and his written script. Even where Ria, who knows Tuyunri, is the focaliser of the narration, the narration renders her as a ‘metu’ra’—storyteller—instead of a ‘me-tura’—snake-woman—in her own consciousness: quote, “[Ria] had gone to his house that very same day, and her arrival was met by […] a frantic mother hustling her sons about to make them presentable to the metu’ra” – the storyteller (Norasid 158). In Irigarayan terms, “[t]ake that to mean that woman does not exist, but that language exists. That woman does not exist owing to the fact that language—a language—rules as master, and that she threatens—as a sort of “prediscursive reality”?—to disrupt its order” (Irigaray 89). And Ria whose body is social-text cannot co-exist in a masculinist hegemonic reality with her narrative-as-discursive-text, now circumscribed and circulated by the male subject, otherwise “it would mean granting that there may be some other logic, and one that upsets his own. That is, a logic that challenges mastery” (90). In this way then, “are we not brought back to the traditional division between the intelligible and the perceptible? The fact that the perceptible may even turn out in the end to be written with a capital letter marks its subordination to the intelligible order. To the intelligible, moreover, as the place of inscription of forms” (100).
The mis-rendering of ‘me-tura’ as ‘metu’ra’ occurs as a result of the semiotic being imposed upon by the symbolic, and so forced to conform to the symbolic standards of codification such that Ria’s story may recorded. The symbolic’s focus is, notably, quote, “[t]o tell – no, create – a story like hers” (Norasid 3, emphasis mine), and so the male symbolic inscribes over the female semiotic in an act not merely of narrative reproduction, but of narrative creation; the narrative recounted does not just reproduce the female’s narrative, but in fact departs from nuances in the female’s narrative.
Finally, the feminist politics of the novel are problematised in its presentation the underground city of Nelroote as the space of the abject. In fact, Nelroote seems structured specifically as the space of the maternal abject from the descriptions of its physical geography. Its intricate complex of tunnels radiating from a cavernous hollow recall the womb: one, quote, “could not think of Nelroote apart from its vast network of tunnels and corridors” (Norasid 155, emphases mine), its “corners and […] still more tunnels of uneven turning paths in what seemed to be a massive labyrinth” (129). Just as the womb is the site whence menstrual blood originates, Nelroote is the site whence the “worship of the deity, the Blood Mother [or “Blood Aunt” (188) …] an ancient religion” (174, all emphases mine) which believed in “[a] constant cycle of rebirth”—reminiscent of monthly menstrual blood cycles—originated.
The way in which menstruation doubles as both the waste that is abjected from the body and that which holds the potential for life is, too, reflected in Nelroote. Quote: “Without a sophisticated sewage disposal system, it had adopted a smell. It was the smell of waste and wasting, but it was the smell of living too” (Norasid 155, emphases mine). Thus, Nelroote presents, as Creed writes of the abject, “that which threatens to destroy life [but] also helps to define life” (Creed 46) such that apart from it, one would feel “a strange sense of incompleteness” (Norasid 140). The assurance of the living is then founded in the knowledge that the living is not the waste or the wasting, though it is precisely such waste and wasting that constantly threatens the assurance of the living by highlighting life’s fragility and constant ebbing away unto death.
In this way, Nelroote as the place, quote, “where “jungle met rock” [… where] no one dared to go to” (Norasid 97) becomes Kristeva’s “place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva 2), thereby threatening the normality of society. However, the threat of this space of the abject to normality is addressed by othering this space in ways that conform to, and so reproduce, conventional patterns of phallogocentrism which configure logic and meaning around the symbolic phallus. Nelroote is delineated against, and so set up as a shadow double to, the surface world of Manticura. It is a, quote, “dark and putrid underworld” (Norasid 201) where “the laws of the surface did not apply” (143). Nelroote’s meaning problematically remains often non-autonomous: defined not independently, but in relation to how it departs from the stable reality of metropolitan Manticura.
Also, this feminine space is problematically centred around a symbol of patrilineal tradition. At the literal centre of Nelroote is Old Waro’s shop, which, quote, “had stood at the centre of concentric circles of houses and tenement apartments for as long as anyone could remember, making one wonder if the settlement had been built around it instead of it being a product of the settlement’s need for provisions” (Norasid 164, emphases mine). The space of Nelroote is then symbolically configured around this symbol of patrilineal tradition as Waro’s “father used to own the store and had later relinquished it to Waro” (164), passing it down to Waro through structures of patrilineal inheritance. This fittingly adheres to Irigaray’s “phallic [model … that] shares the values promulgated by patriarchal society and culture, values inscribed in the philosophical corpus: property, production, order, form, unity, visibility … and erection” (Irigaray 85). In fact, Waro is also such an agent of patriarchy; he would “give the young women all sorts of trouble with his salacious remarks, sometimes [with] brazen bum-grabbing, and not even the threat of [petrifaction] was able to keep him in check” (Norasid 165). Hence, in the presentation of Nelroote as the space of the maternal abject, conventional patterns of phallogocentrism, which configure logic and meaning around the symbolic phallus, are conformed to, and so reproduced. In conclusion then, for the feminist project—to develop unequivocally effective and successful modes of feminist representation and resistance in literature—remains, hidden away perhaps in the crags and crevices of chasms like Nelroote and the generative maternal womb, for creation must be an act expressive of the power of autonomy. The uncreated makes no demands on the creator to be created—it cannot—but the creator makes a choice in so calling it into creation with hospitality, or risks instead the hostility of biopolitical mplantation trauma. To Irigaray, the womb as ““receptacle” receives the marks of everything, understands and includes everything—except itself—but its relation to the intelligible is never actually established. The receptacle can reproduce everything, “mime” everything, except itself: it is the womb of mimicry” (Irigaray 101).
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